Business Today

'Something to learn from the Indian woman CEO'

Somnath Dasgupta        Print Edition: September 18, 2011

Ripa Rashid, co-author with Sylvia Ann Hewlett of Winning the War for Talent in Emerging Markets, visited India recently. Their book looks at how employers attract and retain women in Brazil, Russia, India and China, or BRIC, nations - as well as in the United Arab Emirates. Edited excerpts from an interview with Somnath Dasgupta:

On the hurdles women face in the Indian private sector
The first are the hidden biases. So, when women come back from maternity leave, they might get put on a less visible project, or they might not be given assignments that require travelling. So it is a hidden set of biases and assumptions that they are less committed to their work.

The second is the networks. Women all over the world rely on putting their heads down and working, and assuming someone will look up and say, great, let's promote you. Women need to be educated about the need to toot their own horn. They don't ask for things and they keep themselves back.

Three, people need seniors who are willing to support them, to take a risk on them, to move them up. As a woman you need to make your work known and build relationships.

On women CEO models
Thirty years ago, because there were very few women at the top, the ones who had to be there modelled themselves on men. But as more women get to the top, there is a broader range of styles there. So you will find some who are more like men, and some who are more feminine.

There aren't unfortunately that many women CEOs at least in the West, so there aren't that many positive examples... I think there are many more in India. The rise of India is creating a more inclusive type of leadership globally... more of a middle-path, balanced leadership.

On 'too much' ambition
Women with too much ambition are still perceived as a threat in many environments. We are talking of systems that have evolved for over 50 years, and when they were started they were for a workforce that was pretty much 100 per cent male. Women are essentially newcomers to this workplace. So everything they do is suspect. If a woman is assertive, she is too aggressive; if she doesn't talk too much, she doesn't have leadership potential!

India has more women at the top, and I think there is something to be learnt from the Indian way. I think maybe there is something to be learnt from the Indian female CEO.

On working from home
India is probably ahead of the other countries in being okay with a lot of flexibility and virtual work, because of the BPO industry here... In countries such as China and Brazil, 'face time' is a much bigger issue. In Brazil, the other big problem is daily danger. In Rio and Sao Paulo, people don't want to take their laptops home with them because they will get mugged.

Also, people do not necessarily like to work from home. In China, for example, they are often living in small apartments with four elders. We find very few women wanting to work from home all the time. What women want is flexibility at the edges - when to come in, when to leave, may be half a day at home.

On companies headed by women as employers of women
Such organisations often do have different cultural imperatives. I have a friend who works in PepsiCo in the US, and Indra Nooyi apparently sends these personal inspirational notes every day. I can't think of any male CEOs doing it. I think it is not necessarily the CEO who should be a woman, but the senior management team should include women.

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